04/26/12 #Syria Distressing: A ‘leaked’ video shows a young man been beaten and tortured by shabiha in a car, they appear to be using a taser.
The bodies were in a field, dumped during the night. They were men who had been arrested and taken away for interrogation after the forces of the Syrian regime began a vicious and vengeful sweep through this region.
The families in the village of Kurin have not been able to collect and bury their dead because they would be walking into a trap; any approach so far, they say, has been met with sniper fire. A force of rebel fighters who went to carry out the task twice had to retreat under fire from mortars.
Their commander, Abdul Haq, spread his hands in apology. “If we went any further there would be more killed, more for us to try and bring back. We feel we are failing our people, but we cannot match the weapons of the enemy.”
Yesterday, as the savage strife continued, the Friends of Syria – America, Western Europe and the Arab countries – meeting in Tunis issued yet another ultimatum to Bashar al-Assad and announced that the opposition group, the Syrian National Council, would be recognised as the legitimate government by a number of states, including the UK.
None of this brings much relief in these killing grounds. The estimate of fatalities varies: according to the United Nations it is around 5,400, while activists say it is around 7,300. But it is a figure rising daily and, to those who have borne the losses, it seems little is being done to stop the murderous campaign.
Nor is there much enthusiasm for the Syrian National Council. Few in the rural areas have heard of it and many among those who have, including rebel fighters, view them as preaching revolution from a comfortable exile.
Here in Idlib province, in north-western Syria, The Independent found the reality is of troops and armour backed by the Alawite militia, the Shabiha, systematically going through the area, killing more people in the last four days than have fallen victim even in the terrible bombardment of Homs.
Almost every village and township has tales of being visited by organised violence. On the day that the eight bodies were found at Kurin, activists were being held at Azmarin, Idita, Iblin and Bashon, on occasions after being identified by informers.
Six were arrested at Darkush, including a 13-year-old boy and a schoolteacher. There “they had a list, they knew the ones they wanted” said Issa Mohammed, 22. “No one could go to help them because there were so many roadblocks. If anyone said anything they would be captured as well.”
One needs to be cautious of these accounts in such a bloody conflict in which hurt and anger, as well as political expediency, can lead to embellished tales.
But here residents would come forward with names of those killed and detained, albeit with requests that the names of those still thought to be alive should not be made public because this may expedite their deaths and put relations and friends in harm’s way.
Abd Jibilawe, from al-Janoudiyah, described how three friends have lost their lives so far, before adding quietly “and there was Ahmed Jibilawe who was my cousin and my best friend”.
At a hamlet near Darkush, Hasina Um Samin was mourning her brother, Abu Khalid. “We are just poor people, we have not done anything bad,” she said, huddled under a thin blanket at her home, unheated because of a lack of fuel. “Still they came and took him. We thought it must be a mistake, but we don’t know where he is. We fear will not see him again.”
There is little defence in Idlib against a state which is clearly waging a war on its own people. The revolutionaries here are mainly local men, with courage but no military training and woefully short of anything like adequate arms and ammunition. Witnessing their plight, one had wry memories of rebels in Libya firing thousands of rounds into the air, often in celebration of imaginary victories.
The Libyan revolution was, of course, facilitated by months of Nato bombing. The constant question here is why no military action has followed grandiose statements by the West. For the time being, however, the rebels would be grateful for supplies which would go some way towards enabling them to take on the regime.
Commander Haq, a 34-year-old mechanic, has around 50 fighters under his command, but not even one semi-automatic rifle between them. Instead they pass around 20 hunting rifles, shotguns and handguns and one set of body armour brought over by a soldier who defected.
As we sat at his base, a farm building in the hills above Darkush, pinned down by a burst of machine-gun fire flying overhead, he opened a rucksack containing cartridges. “This is what I’ve been sent. Perhaps the Syrian National Council can send us some proper guns and ammunition from all the international money they are getting. Look at these, how old they are. Some of these are rusting. Some of these are not even the right type for the guns we have.”
At this point a Remington pump-action shotgun one of his men was using simply fell apart, possibly due to metal fatigue. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the men were keen to show other examples of their antiquated armoury – a Soviet Star pistol proudly bearing the place of manufacture, CCCP, and the date, 1948. Britain, too had provided a little help for the Syrian revolution – a Webley revolver, circa the 1930s.
Later in the afternoon, during a break in the shooting, another commander, Abu Staif, came in proudly bearing the favoured tool of revolutionaries the world over, a Kalashnikov AK-47.
This one, the first for the group, was a regime-issue weapon. It had not been captured but bought from a member of the Shabiha. “It cost us $2,000 – even then we had to wait for almost two months,” said Commander Staif. “The man who sold it to us stole it from another person from the Shabiha so the registration would not get back to him if Bashar’s people capture it back.
“The Shabiha and the army are both corrupt, just like the rotten regime they serve. The soldiers are more corrupt. One officer offered to sell us his entire checkpoint with tanks, but he wanted more money than we could ever have. The Shabiha are more difficult because they are Alawites and they hate us.”
The price of a Kalashnikov of similar vintage would probably be around $300 in places like Afghanistan. The Syrian rebels insist paying so much is not an illustration of being flush with Qatari or Saudi largesse, but rather of having to turn to wherever they can.
Most of their funding, they claimed, came from donations raised by local communities. This, however, has suffered a setback because one of their main fund-raisers had been killed that morning at Jisr al-Shughour.
“They used an agent. He was sent to find out who were the organisers, and they came and shot him in front of his family,” said Izzedin Hihano, a revolutionary from the town.
“For years, the Assads controlled us by fear. We are not afraid any longer. People would rather die than go back to that. But why must that happen? Why must more die? We need help quickly – we are desperate.”
Monday, 20 February 2012
By Al Arabiya and Agencies
Syrian authorities have freed prominent blogger Razan Ghazzawi, along with six other female activists arrested last week during a security raid on the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, located in central Damascus and headed by rights activist Mazen Darwish.
It was her sister Nadine who confirmed the news on Twitter: “@NadineGhazzawi: #FreeRazan #Syria Sister is home…but she can’t leave the country anymore…they won’t allow her”.
HATAY, Turkey — Ammar Cheikh Omar recalled the first time he was ordered to shoot into a crowd of protesters in Syria. He aimed his AK-47 just above their heads, prayed to God not to make him a killer and pulled the trigger.
Mr. Omar, 29, the soft-spoken and wiry son of Syrian parents who had emigrated to Germany in the 1950s, grew up in Rheda-Wiedenbrück, a prosperous village of half-timbered 16th-century houses, where he listened to Mariah Carey and daydreamed about one day returning to Syria.
Today, he is still trying to make sense of his unlikely transformation from a dutiful German student to a killer for the brutal Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad and, ultimately, a defector. “I was proud to be Syrian, but instead became a soldier for a regime that was intent on killing its own people,” Mr. Omar said on a recent day, chain-smoking at a café in this Turkish border town. “I thank God every day that I am still alive.”
Human rights groups and Syrian activists said he was one of thousands of Syrians who had inadvertently found themselves deployed as foot soldiers for a regime that the United Nations estimates has killed more than 5,000 since the crackdown on demonstrators began in March.
Soldiers are typically conscripted at age 18, with members of Syria’s Sunni majority making up the bulk of the army ranks and minority Alawis, who come from the same religious group as Mr. Assad, often serving as high-ranking officers or in the state security apparatus. Mr. Omar, a highly educated Sunni with flawless Arabic, gained entry to a security unit attached to the Interior Ministry.
Human rights groups estimate that there are at least 5,000 defectors; an exact number is difficult to confirm because many remain in hiding. “Mr. Omar’s harrowing tale fits an all-too-familiar pattern in which soldiers are deployed away from their hometowns to help ensure that they will be less likely to refuse an order to kill,” said Ole Solvang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who has interviewed dozens of Syrian defectors, including Mr. Omar. “He was one of the lucky ones, as he managed to escape.”
There is no way to corroborate much of Mr. Omar’s account of his journey to becoming an enforcer for the Assad regime. Though human rights groups and activists operating in Syria say it fits the pattern of hundreds of defectors who have fled the country, it is simply one man’s tale. It began in 2004 when he left Germany for Aleppo, with the aim of getting in touch with his roots, studying law, improving his Arabic and finding a wife.
He managed to do all that, entering law school, marrying a doctor and, eventually, having a child. His parents, meanwhile, had moved back to Aleppo because his father wanted to live out his final years in the old country.
In late 2010, Mr. Omar was conscripted into the Syrian military, just weeks before a Tunisian fruit seller immolated himself and set off the wave of regional protests that eventually buffeted Syria, whose authoritarian president is determined to keep his family’s grip on power.
At first, said Mr. Omar, who had always felt like an outsider in Germany, he was proud to be serving the government. Soldiers were initially told that their main task was to defend the country against Israel, he said. But when demonstrations erupted, they were told that the protesters were “terrorists” or “armed gangs” sponsored by foreign forces. Access to cell phones, non-state television or the Internet was strictly prohibited; breaching that rule was punishable by up to two months in jail.
Mr. Omar’s first deployment was in the southern city of Dara’a, near Jordan, where, he said, he and his 350-strong unit were dispatched in March to help crack down on intensifying demonstrations. He said he had been ordered to arrest and shoot at dozens of protesters, including many young students, who had scrawled antigovernment graffiti on the walls of the town
“The army needed everyone. It was very brutal,” he said. “But if there’s an officer of the Mukhabarat next to you,” he added, referring to the country’s feared security services, “you don’t have a choice but to shoot.”
Every soldier was armed with 60 bullets and given new ammunition each night, Mr. Omar said, and he said he had watched with incredulity as security forces fired live rounds at protesters assembling near the central Omari mosque, killing at least six people and injuring dozens more. He said his unit had shot at the protesters from above a roof overlooking the mosque. One of his fellow soldiers began to scream uncontrollably when he realized that his 18-year-old brother, demonstrating below on the street, had been shot. The soldier buried him two days later.
Shaken by what he had seen, Mr. Omar said, he was determined to defect. But before he could act, he was sent to Duma, northeast of Damascus, the capital, to work in a security unit interrogating detainees.
Mr. Omar said he had been asked to take notes during the interrogation of prisoners, some as young as 15 years old. He said demonstrators had been blindfolded and forced to strip to their underwear before their hands were tied behind their backs. Interrogations were conducted by four or five soldiers and officers in a dark, windowless room. He said the interrogating officer had ordered him to write down confessions naming protest leaders, confessions that detainees were then asked to finger stamp rather than sign, since their hands were bound.
To force confessions, Mr. Omar said, the soldiers tortured the detainees with electrified cattle prods, beat them or urinated on them. Some passed out. Others bled heavily. Many disappeared.
“The soldiers demanded to know why they had gone to the streets and who had paid them,” he recalled. “It was painful to watch. At the beginning I couldn’t sleep, but after a while, I got used to it. But I could not live with myself if I had remained.”
As the protests gathered pace over the summer, Mr. Omar was sent to Hama, where he was relieved of his AK-47 and instead given a shield and a stun gun, he said. With tens of thousands of people on the streets in Hama, he said, he hoped he could disappear into the crowd. At noon on July 26, he said, he and two fellow officers decided to defect from their army base, changing into civilian clothes and jumping over the wall.
They found refuge in the homes of people opposed to the regime, Mr. Omar said, and wrapped scarves around their heads to conceal their faces. Fearing that he would be kidnapped or “disappeared” in Syria under some false pretext, Mr. Omar made a video, which he posted on YouTube, to establish that he had defected.
The defectors were driven toward the Turkish border in broad daylight, eventually abandoning their car and walking through woods to avoid detection. At 7 a.m. on July 30, he said, they crossed illegally into Hatay, where they met up with members of the rebel Free Syrian Army, settling in a refugee camp.
At the camp, a gaunt and pale Mr. Omar produced another video to post on YouTube, in which he said he was ashamed that he had been part of Mr. Assad’s forces. “I will never forget the dead bodies of young and old men, but also women and children on the streets,” he said, dressed in a uniform of the Free Syrian Army and appearing with a Syrian flag.
Appealing directly to Germany, he added: “Hitler died in Germany, but awoke in Syria.” Germany eventually helped get him out of the camp so he could get a stamp in his passport to remain in Turkey.
Mr. Omar joined the rebel army, a scruffy group numbering around 10,000 soldiers, whose mandate is to protect civilians from the regime. He is now an officer, helping to smuggle wounded rebels into Turkey, some of whom he houses in his home. He said he supported the political demonstrations against the government but warned, “We cannot afford to meet guns with only talk and slogans.”
He fears for his family, including his wife, their 1-year old-daughter and his parents. After his escape, he said, his brother-in-law was fired from his architecture job, and the family’s house in Aleppo was vandalized.
But he said he had no regrets. “My family knows I made the right choice.”
Source: The New York Times
”We go outside only to film or report” … net-savvy Syrians are documenting scenes from the government crackdown, including a wounded man.
Young activists defy torturers and thugs to reveal the Syrian government’s repression, write Christine Marlow and Nick Meo.
Naked on the concrete floor of the interrogation room, hands tied behind his back and a blindfold covering his eyes, the boy listened to the slowly approaching footsteps of the intelligence officer. The screams of his brother came from the next room.
”Where is the media rat? Where is Ali?” the interrogator rasped into his ears. He felt someone clamp cables to his toes and push him back into the shallow pool of water as the voltage was turned up for his next electric shock.
The two teenagers were detained after Syrian officers found loudspeakers at their home in the Damascus suburb of Douma which, they said, could be used at protests.
An Arab League monitor purporting to have seen a sniper.
Kept in a political intelligence base in the capital for two months, they were alternately interrogated and tortured for information on opposition activists in their town.
Their questioners especially focused, the brothers said, on who was documenting crackdowns on demonstrations for dissemination to the foreign media.
In more than nine months of protest against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, culminating in some of the largest demonstrations two days ago, it is Syria’s media activists who have ensured that the outside world knows what is going on.
The number and scale of the protests, and the barbarity with which they have often been suppressed, have been witnessed by hundreds of millions abroad, not least in nearby Arab countries.
Last week, a 66-strong team of Arab League observers was finally admitted into the country, forced on the reluctant government as the price of avoiding tougher sanctions from its neighbours and agreed by Assad in what may yet turn out to be a final gamble to stay in power.
Under the peace plan being monitored by the league, the government is supposed to pull its forces out of the centres of towns where an estimated 5000 civilians have been killed.
But, in Douma, there were reports that troops used tear gas and nail bombs to disperse demonstrators, causing hideous injuries to some.
Once again, all that the world could see of last Friday’s events came from video sent illicitly by activists - people such as the two brothers from Douma whom The Sunday Telegraph met just an hour after their release.
Thin and pallid, with dark circles under their eyes and their hair only just beginning to grow back after it was shaved off, they met the man whose identity and whereabouts they had been striving to protect, an activist known as Ali who, for months, has filmed repression in the town and given frequent interviews to foreign news channels.
”They wanted to know everything about you, Ali,” one brother said. ”They interrogated us separately to play mind games with us. They told me, ‘Your brother knows where Ali is and has told us. You should tell us too.”’
The other said: ”I had so many electric shocks because of you! But I didn’t tell them anything.”
Concerned for his security, Ali asked: ”How did they know you were connected to me? I didn’t visit your home, we didn’t speak on the phone.”
The boy shrugged. ”They had many stories about you, they have been trying to follow you.”
With foreign journalists banned from operating independently, shaky hand-held camera images and Skype conversations with activists have been crucial to the world’s understanding of events in Syria, and have played a big part in building pressure on the regime. Such activity is illegal.
”Many friends have been taken to prison and tortured; their crime was speaking to someone on Facebook. Speaking on Skype, this is the biggest offence,” Ali said.
When Ali decided to take on this life, he left behind his wife and child and, with three colleagues, went underground, living in a safe house and changing to a new one every two months to evade capture.
Details, the men said, could be the difference between life and death; women’s and a child’s shoes lay scattered casually by the front door, to give the impression of a family home. Metal crossbars erected across the inside of the front door could buy precious seconds for escape.
Four mattresses lay on the floor and an old television sat in the corner broadcasting al-Jazeera. A tiny window high in a corner let in a crack of light and a bare light bulb hung overhead.
The men huddled around an electric heater, focusing on laptops and working silently but for Skype conversations with overseas news channels, or opposition co-ordinators in other cities. They paused only to eat or pray.
”This is our life. We go outside only to film or report. The rest of the time, this room and the internet are our world,” Yahya, 17, the youngest of the four, said.
When electricity was cut and mobile phone signals jammed to block communications, the activists responded by buying generators and satellite communications equipment smuggled into Syria from Turkey and Lebanon.
They play a game of cat and mouse with security forces. One of their colleagues described leaping from a second-floor window to evade capture.
”A television crew had been streaming live video of anti-regime protests from our location,” Omar said.
”A few days later, we were attacked by security forces. We saw them run down the street and into our building. We had no choice but to jump.”
”I broke my leg,” Hassan, another of the four, said. ”It was a painful day, they took all of our cameras.” Others were not so lucky. ”A friend of mine went to see his family. He slept in his own bed for just one night. But that was the night they came to arrest him,” Hassan said.
”He was forced to tell everything. They tortured him badly and promised to release him if he spoke.
”Now he is free but we can’t talk to him. He is dangerous. His phone is tapped, his movements are watched.”
Signs of the strain on the Assad regime are visible even in central Damascus, according to fresh accounts from fleeing Syrians in neighbouring Lebanon last week.
The government sent security forces on to the streets of the capital, which until recently have been mostly quiet.
A student aged 28, who uses the name Abdullah, said: ”You can often hear shooting and sometimes bombs as well.
”People are scared: they are sending each other texts to say where the shooting is. You can see fear in people’s eyes. I live in a modern, prosperous area in the centre of town. We’re just not used to this.”
Speaking in Beirut, where he arrived on Thursday, he said checkpoints had proliferated across the city, with security forces and even tanks, to the dismay of better-off residents who had seen little of the uprising.
His biggest shock was an encounter with regime thugs known as Shabiha, outside a mosque in the Kafarsouseh district. ”There were 50 of these ugly guys with short hair and long sticks, gathered because there had been some protesters around,” Abdullah said.
He said he heard later the thugs had attacked the mosque’s sheikh, who was taken to hospital.
A TV crew and secret police had turned up there demanding he say he was attacked by terrorists. ”The sheikh refused, saying that he was only scared of God,” Abdullah said.